by Chan Koonchung; Doubleday, 2012; 310 pages; $27. 95
Nothing lights a fire under the feet of Western readers like the sound of the phrase “banned book.” Whether it be stricken from the classroom or barred from the shelves of family-friendly retail stores, any book that manages to get itself “banned” automatically sends fingers flying to keyboards as American bookworms race to buy the next “Ulysses” or “The Catcher in the Rye.” While censors on this side of the globe have traditionally blacklisted such works because of their “graphic content,” authorities in the People’s Republic of China are notoriously un-squeamish, regularly encouraging the sale of titles that would make even the most demented Western author feel a little queasy.
Unsurprisingly, the books that never reach the shelves in China are the ones that criticize the country’s despotic regime, like Chan Koonchung’s “The Fat Years.” Though it has just this year been translated into English, the dystopian novel was originally published in 2011, and could only be legally sold in Taiwan and other less rigidly-controlled communities off the Chinese mainland. Resourceful peddlers in major cities like Beijing, however, managed to smuggle copies, under the counter, to their more daring customers. Though some might scoff at the use of such elaborate measures just to obtain a book, one can easily understand their urgency when considering that online critics initially hailed Koonchung’s novel as being “Orwellian” and the Chinese equivalent of Aldus Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
Nothing could be further from the truth, however, since “The Fat Years” lacks the grace and boldness that it takes to be counted among such distinguished company. Firstly, the novel is set not decades in the future, but in a fictional reimagining of our present, where an escalated financial meltdown in the West has ushered in an unparalleled age of prosperity and, consequently, fascism, for the people of China. From there, the plot resembles science fiction in name only as a cast of forgettable characters struggle to determine whether their government is lying to them, and, if so, whether the lies are worth swallowing in order to maintain the country’s economic success. Though Koonchung’s concerns, in the novel, seem valid, and they obviously rattled a few Party members, the author handles his agenda artlessly, causing “The Fat Years” to seem less like a sci-fi novel and more like a lead-footed political exposé.
Lance Hicks is an English major at Jacksonville State University.